Saturday, December 19, 2009

Death by gardening

Gardening can be dangerous, often in ways which are utterly unanticipated. Modern power tools can be limb or even life threatening in the hands of an exhausted or inattentive worker. Something as simple as a hammer misdirected can mash a finger tip and make the ensuing weeks miserable for the victim.

But even when you think you're being smart and careful, things happen. Here are two stories which recount times when I did something which, had the circumstances been slightly different, might well have cost me my life.

Both stories involve my preoccupation with collecting seeds: evidently I'm part squirrel. No matter where I am, if there are seeds to be gathered, I'm probably stuffing my pockets.

Years ago there was a good harvest of seeds from one of the aconites in the garden. The members of the genus Aconitum have two notable qualities: they produce handsome flowers, usually blue, and they have been used as very effective poisons since ancient times. These form seed capsules like those of columbines or delphiniums, and I had collected lots of these capsules which were full of seed. That evening after dinner I sat down to sort out the seeds and clean them, packed them away, and then went on to make a bowl of popcorn before turning in for the night. I picked out a book to read, got into bed, started to read and munch pop corn. At first I didn't notice anything, but then it became apparent that the pop corn was atypically bitter. And then it dawned on me: I had not washed my hands after handling the aconite seed. Aconites are notorious for their potent poisons. How much does it take to kill an adult human? I lay there experiencing a combination of nervousness and downright terror: was I going to die? The thought of dying itself did not bother me so much as the thought of dying so stupidly: I could see the newspaper article: Montgomery County gardener accidentally poisons self after handling toxic plant materials.

Since you're reading this, you know how the story turned out. In fact, there were no unpleasant aftereffects from ingesting whatever the bitter substance was. But before going to bed that night I had a long, serious talk with myself about some of the stupid things I do.

Here's another one: about thirty years ago, when AIDS was just coming into public consciousness, I was down in Adams Morgan one evening walking somewhere along Columbia Rd. This is a part of the city full of night spots which draw the sort of street activities, legal and illegal, engaged in by people out for a night of pleasure. Although it was dark, the streets were well lit. There were some ginkgo trees, and they were dropping fruit. I wanted some ginkgo seeds, so I decided to look around on the ground to see if I could find them.

The seeds on the sidewalk all seemed to have been crushed, so I decided to look under a low hedge which grew along the sidewalk. Little light penetrated there, and so I was depending on my sense of touch to find the ginkgo seeds. As I ran my hand over the surface of the ground, I suddenly felt a sharp, penetrating prick. My first thought: I had been stuck by a used hypodermic syringe tossed into the bushes by an AIDS infected drug addict.

For a few terrifying, confusing moments I didn't know what to do and wondered if my life was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. I tried to see if it was in fact a hypodermic syringe, but it was too dark to see.

And then I got a good look at the hedge: even in the dark I could see what they were - they were pyracantha, the shrub aptly named fire thorn. I had been jabbed plenty of times in my life by pyracantha thorns; but this was the first time it was such a relief for it to have happened.

1 comment:

ChrisU said...

fun read on a snowy day. thanks